Speech by HR/VP Federica Mogherini at the EP event for the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

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Grazie, Antonio [Tajani, President of the European Parliament].

Permettimi di iniziare con un sincero ringraziamento a te e al Parlamento europeo per aver deciso di celebrare insieme questa giornata. Abbiamo pensato che fosse la migliore cosa da fare – organizzare le celebrazioni per l’anniversario della Dichiarazione Universale dei Diritti Umani insieme al nostro forum annuale sui diritti umani con le ONG. E credo che sia stata un’ottima scelta, anche per indicare il modo in cui le istituzione europee insieme lavorano per tutelare e promuovere i diritti umani non soltanto all’interno dell’Unione europea, ma anche in tutto il resto del mondo, in partnership con i nostri amici della società civile.

Seventy years after the Universal Declaration on Human Rights was written, we are still working to turn each and every word from that Declaration into practice. And a big part of our collective work is carried out by NGOs.

So, I would like to thank very much and really sincerely you from Civil Society Organisations and those working to defend human rights – friends from across the world – with whom we work daily in your countries and who today have made the trip to be here with us. You are the essential part of our work to promote and defend human rights.

When you read the Declaration, it is immediately clear that we still have a long way to go. Seventy years ago, the Declaration stated that everyone has the right to work, and the right to equal pay for equal work. It recognised everyone’s right to education – without distinction as to race, gender, religion, ethnicity, social background and financial means.

Yes, the Declaration was ahead of its time. In my own country – Italy – women were not allowed to vote until just two years before the Declaration. And in many other countries, voting rights were still restricted to certain social groups. And yet, the Declaration recognised that “everyone has the right to take part in the government of their country,” and that “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government.”

We do have a very long way to go towards truly inclusive democracies; towards closing the gender pay gap; towards respect and dignity for all, beyond faith, colour and ethnicity.

Many of you who are here today have put your entire life to the service of these goals. And we have to be grateful for that. And for this commitment some of you have faced violence, harassment, imprisonment. So many friends, personal friends, are today in prison. Too many of your colleagues and friends cannot be here with us today because they have lost their freedom or they have lost their life.

Seventy years after the Universal Declaration we cannot take human rights for granted. And I think this is the first message we are here to pass – collectively, to all of us. On the contrary, human rights and fundamental freedoms have come under new pressure.

Some, around the world, are arguing that human rights are outdated; That national interest can justify the suppression of individual and collective rights; That national security requires the suspension of certain rights. I believe we are all here today, to affirm the opposite: that the only sustainable security is the one based on full respect of all human rights. When civil rights, social rights and individual freedoms are guaranteed, it is then that our societies are really strong and protected and secure. Every violation of human rights is a violation of our collective and national interests.

During this year, we have tried to show this in practice, through the real stories of people like you in this room. In a moment when human rights are under attack, we want to move from a defensive approach to a more proactive one. Precisely because human rights are questioned, we should keep in mind what human rights mean in practice, in the daily life, and what we have achieved together in these 70 years since the Universal Declaration.

Some of our countries gave the right to vote and to study to people who never had it before and this is the most powerful engine for change. Some of our countries brought thousands of people out of poverty, and let them contribute more, fully, to public life. Some went from dictatorship to democracy, also in Europe.

To tell these stories we joined forces with 13 countries from all continents, to show that progress on human rights is happening all around the world and that is only thanks to our determination – I would say to our stubbornness – and to your courage. And I am grateful to Michelle [Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights], because we were together in New York during the [UN] General Assembly presenting these good stories on human rights, showing that determination, courage and common work delivers results. We have told these stories to show that progress on human rights is possible and is happening and to show that thanks to people like you, there is hope that tomorrow will be better than today.

These are stories of empowerment and emancipation, wrongs that were made right, communities made stronger through the work of civil society organisations. Girls who have refused early marriage are getting help and support. Indigenous people can continue to live in their fathers’ land and preserve their culture. Migrant people have been welcomed to places that they now call home.

But let me say that in too many places this is still not happening. It is true that human rights continue to be violated, all around the world, including here in Europe. And that in some countries the situation is getting worse. But the good news is that there is nothing inevitable about this. We can all contribute to positive change and we all have an interest to do that. Each individual, each country and institution has a clear choice to make. And I believe in the inspirational power, the contagion that can be spread when the positive results are shown and the good stories are told.

We, as the European Union, we have made our choice very clearly. This Parliament has celebrated and supported people like Denis Mukwege [Nobel Peace Prize Winner 2018] and Nadia Murad [Nobel Peace Prize Winner 2018], through the years and, most importantly, in the moment of need.

With our programme to protect human rights defenders, we have supported people like you when you were on trial, or when your life and your family came under threat. Together we worked – in public and silently, in private – to achieve the liberation of civil society activists and opposition leaders – as we did a few months ago in a country like Azerbaijan and as we continue to do every single day everywhere in the world, in the countries close to ours and far away.

And last September, we joined forces with the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation – for the first time ever – to pass a resolution in the UN Human Rights Council, to establish an international accountability mechanism on Myanmar.

These are just examples, but as Antonio [Tajani] was mentioning, our work continues at home: our societies here in Europe are not perfect and we have a duty, also as a matter of credibility, to keep a constant focus on the situation of human rights inside our continent. It would be great if human rights could be achieved once and for all – but that is not how things work, also in life. Things are never achieved once and for all. Human rights are always a work in progress, and every single generation has a specific responsibility.

In difficult times like ours, our responsibility is to avoid one mistake: We cannot give in to the idea that this Declaration belongs to another era, or maybe only to a few countries. That it is something from the past. It is called the Universal Declaration for one reason: because Representatives from all parts of the world joined together and agreed on principles that did not just belong to one culture or one civilisation.

The world had just gone through the greatest catastrophe in human history for which we European carried the majority of the responsibility. And the whole world at that point found the courage to come together, to find some common ground after the most devastating destruction in history, beyond all ideological, cultural and religious divides and unite.

Today, we need to find once again that spirit of global unity. We need to remember there is something that binds us together as human beings, beyond all our differences and disagreements.

I believe that we must keep in mind that the Universal Declaration, the United Nations, the International Criminal Court and all the rules that we have agreed together are not an restraint, are not an obstacle against the achievement of our particular national interests. When we come together, it is the contrary that happens. These principles, these common grounds are the foundation of our co-existence, and the only way we have to preserve, promote national interests and to avoid and prevent yet another catastrophe.

Seventy years on, we need to go back to the spirit of 1948. And we must keep that Universal Declaration at the centre of our daily work.

So let me conclude by saying that this is not an anniversary; it is not a commemoration. The Universal Declaration remains a manifesto for today. It must be the guiding light for the future of our European Union, as it is, and of the whole world. I thank you very much – most of all for the daily work you do.

Thank you.

Link to the video: https://ec.europa.eu/avservices/video/player.cfm?ref=I163604